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No, Ben Franklin Didn’t Want a Turkey on the Great Seal

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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

Maybe you’ve heard this story before: Ben Franklin, enamored with the “respectable” personality of the wild turkey, wanted to see it, instead of the bald eagle, become the national bird and be used as a symbol for the new United States. However, he lost out to the eagle supporters in Congress. It’s a quirky little story, often brought up when conversation turns to turkeys or eagles, and has been repeated both by average joes and the National Wildlife Federation.

The hitch is that the story has become so warped over time that it's more myth than fact.

First off, Franklin wasn’t involved in the designation of the eagle as the national bird or its selection as an element in the Great Seal of the United States. He did sit on the first committee appointed to work on the seal’s design with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1776, but there’s no record of him arguing against an eagle design or suggesting a turkey. Franklin’s official suggestion for the seal while on the committee was actually a Biblical scene: “Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity. ‘Motto - Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.’”

The committee decided to make this the reverse side of the seal, and on the front wanted to depict a shield with emblems symbolizing “the Countries from which these States have been peopled,” including an Imperial Eagle to represent Germany. There’s no written record to suggest that Franklin had anything to say about the eagle. Congress, however, did have some issue with the design. The same day they received the committee’s report and proposal, they had it tabled.

Two more committees, neither of which Franklin served on, were formed in 1780 and 1782 and continued work on the seal. The final design and inclusion of the bald eagle was the work of the third committee. Their design was initially similar to the first committee’s, with a central shield flanked by the figures of a soldier and “maiden America.” They then simplified the image and replaced the two figures with a bald eagle “on the wing and rising.” Here again, there’s no record of a complaint from Franklin, who was then serving as an envoy to Paris and hadn’t participated in the seal design process for six years. Franklin probably couldn’t have said anything about the design even if he had wanted to. Congress approved the seal just three weeks after the design was finished, and travel time from Europe to the U.S. at the time was closer to six to eight weeks, leaving no time for there to be a turkey-versus-eagle debate for Franklin to have lost.

So, if Franklin didn’t propose the turkey in committee or argue against the eagle design when it was being considered, where did people get the idea that he was a turkey lover?

It wasn’t until two years after the final seal was designed and approved that Franklin put his feelings about eagles and turkeys down for posterity. In January 1784, he wrote his daughter a letter, the main subject of which was the Society of the Cincinnati, a military fraternity formed by revolutionary war officers. Franklin griped at length about the society, complaining that membership was hereditary and that the group had taken on many of the characteristics of a chivalric order, which contradicted many of the ideals the society’s members had just fought a war to promote and protect.

Eventually, Franklin turned his attention to the society’s badge. Some of the Society’s critics, Franklin said, complained about the badge’s use of Latin. Others found fault with the title for members that it used. And others took issue with the bald eagle that it depicted, which Franklin said looked “too much like a Dindon, or Turkey.”

He wrote:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perch’d on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him. With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping and Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country, tho’ exactly fit for that Order of Knights which the French call Chevaliers d’Industrie.

“I am on this account not displeas’d that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. Eagles have been found in all Countries, but the Turkey was peculiar to ours, the first of the Species seen in Europe being brought to France by the Jesuits from Canada, and serv’d up at the Wedding Table of Charles the ninth. He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

In repetitions of the Franklin-turkey story, these passages are often taken out of context and made to seem like public statements by Franklin, or made in direct response to the use of the eagle on the Great Seal, instead of private musings made about the eagle’s use by a military society. And while Franklin does lament the eagle becoming symbolic of both the Society and the United States after the fact, he doesn’t say that the turkey would have been a better choice for the Great Seal; he only suggests that he likes that the Society’s eagle resembles a turkey because the turkey is a “more respectable” bird.

Given his criticism of the Society’s practices, “brave and honest” as its members are, and the line about the turkey being “a little vain and silly” but still “a Bird of Courage” driving out the Red Coats, one might read Franklin’s comparisons as just poking some fun at the Society. Even if you take what Franklin said about both birds at face value, though, the story as it's usually told misses the mark and takes some liberties with both Franklin’s opinions and actions. To portray Franklin in “strenuous opposition to it [the eagle] when the great seal was under consideration” and unsuccessfully advocating to replace it with the turkey, says the American Heraldry Society, “is a gross exaggeration of the historical record.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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